Joseph and his Brothers

Written by Thomas Mann Trans. John E. Woods
Review by Sue Asher

The plot of this book is familiar, a more or less chronological rendering of a portion of Genesis. Thomas Mann’s hefty tome is not just the story of Joseph and his brothers (the favored son with the coat of many colors sold into slavery in Egypt by jealous siblings), but also the story of Joseph’s father, Jacob. We read of Jacob stealing his brother Esau’s birthright and then fleeing to his Uncle Laban’s home, where the well-known saga of Leah and Rachel unfolds. The book does not truly become Joseph’s until he arrives in Egypt and begins his rise and eventual fall because of Potiphar’s lovesick wife. Then Joseph the dream interpreter, favored by God, rises again to become Pharaoh’s right- hand man, saving the Egyptians from famine. His starving brothers come to buy food. After toying with them a bit, Joseph reveals himself to them, explaining how it was all part of God’s plan. Of course, the Bible fleshes out this brief summary, but the Bible leaves a lot open to speculation, particularly any psychological insights into the motivation of the main actors.

Joseph and His Brothers leaves nothing out. Thomas Mann wants to illuminate the story’s significance from every angle, examining every detail, even those details that are necessarily obscure. Still reeling from the experience, I believe he succeeds. This is an extraordinary book. Despite its length, its detours, and the fact that I always knew more or less what was going to happen next, I was never bored. In a new translation by John E. Woods it is surprisingly readable, subtly humorous at times, challenging, and ultimately rewarding. It is by far the best book I have read in years.